July 28, 2020
The following article is one I wrote for Psychology Today. It was the second of two articles. With that context, I hope it makes sense. I had a parent suggest that it would be a good article to include on the camp blog, so here it is!
In my previous article, I suggested that the goal of parenting is twofold: to provide safety and protection for our children and to prepare them to be independent and successful adults once they leave us. The first is the primary goal of early parenting and the second is the primary goal of later parenting.
In our attempts to be good parents, we tend toward two major errors. The first is we overachieve on the safety/protection front, with parents striving to eliminate discomfort and provide unattainable levels of safety. This trend of over-parenting impedes our children from experiences that develop confidence, independence, and the skills necessary to strive in the adult world.
The second parental error is the subject of this article.
Struggling to Define “Success”
Earlier, I stated that the second great goal of parenting is to foster independence and success. I generally see a lack of focus on the former (independence) and an ill-conceived approach to the latter (success). In short, parents generally eschew experiences that foster independence and spend too much time helping children be “successful.”
I put “successful” in quotes because parents often chase the wrong goals in their efforts to promote success in their children.
Parents look at a highly competitive world that seems to provide fewer opportunities for their children than it did for them. They read “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and fret that they are being out-parented by others who are more driven and demanding.
We want our children to have great futures and careers, but we worry that this can only be accomplished by attending the best colleges.
But if they are to attend Stanford, they must go to the best possible high school (and middle school and elementary school and preschool) as well as succeed in music, sports and other activities. This results in what I call “competitive parenting,” where each family attempts to schedule more activities, hire more coaches/tutors, and become more involved in their child’s every endeavor.
Once again, these parents are loving and well intentioned. [It is worth noting that while some parents might be living vicariously through their children or treating their children as indicators of status, these parents are the exception. The parents I meet are overwhelmingly committed to their children and this devotion is the impetus of their activities.] Nevertheless, their competitive parenting can be highly harmful in two ways:
Defining Success Incorrectly
We have certain images of success in our minds: sports championships, exceptional music recitals, high grades, attending an Ivy League school, large incomes, etc. While each of these goals reflects a type of success, I take exception with them for a basic reason.
They are the wrong goals.
As parents, we should focus less on specific goals and more on one simple question: are we helping our children shine?
I often cite the wisdom of the Silver Fox (my mother), and I will do so here: “One of the primary tasks of parents is to find an environment in which their child shines.”
Put differently, we should worry less about creating exogenous goals for our children and more about finding environments where they will experience successes and acceptance.
“A shining place” has three important components. First, it should be a good match for a child’s talents and interests – a place where they show skill and a desire to improve.
Second, the “shining place” should provide challenges and opportunities to grow by overcoming these challenges. My wife (and co-director of our summer camp) often stresses “confidence comes from competence.”
The final component of a “shining place” is community and acceptance. This component is often neglected as parents consider activities for their children.
I like to say that our “oddities are our identities,” but often adolescence groups stress conformity and standardized behavior. These groups might talk about celebrating the individual, but they generally do not really do it.
We, as parents, should seek out and cultivate opportunities for our children to celebrate their individuality in a nurturing environment. This environment needs to be separate from the home. Our children already know that they are OK in our homes, but that does not help them cultivate confidence or independent social skills.
As a camp professional, I know that summer camps can provide these types of environments. In fact, creating intentional, supportive communities is one of the primary functions of a quality camp. Whereas schools must focus on teaching subjects first, camps are free to focus on their culture and community. They also provide a rich array of activities so that campers can find opportunities to explore their talents.
Camps, however, are not the only source of such environments. Sports teams, bands, youth groups, religious institutions, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and other activities can also provide a community that celebrates the individual and his or her gifts. They, however, can also do the opposite. Some teams cultivate cruelty rather than kindness, rejection rather than acceptance. When parents ask me about extra-curricular activities for their children, they usually focus on what matches their perception of their child’s skill and/or what might “look good on a resume” (though they usually do not put it this bluntly).
I encourage them to ask another question: “is this an environment that will both challenge my child and facilitate his/her emotional growth?” This is a different filter than we are accustomed to using, but an important one nonetheless.
Environment of Stress
It is worth noting that the trend of competitive parenting has one additional harmful aspect: it creates an environment of stress. When every grade is critical, every game important, and every activity a potential resume-enhancer, the joy of childhood is sapped.
Sapping the joy of childhood is not simply a sad loss, it inhibits growth. Humans under stress are less creative, less social, and less intelligent. When we are under stress, hormones like cortisol change the way our minds operate. Specifically, stress puts us in our “fight or flight” mode, which modifies mental function. When in such a mode, our brain refocuses our energy from extraneous activities (like art, creative thinking, music, love, kindness) to activities designed to end the stress (like fighting back or extricating ourselves from the environment).
If this environment is perpetual, children won’t thrive.
At the risk of sounding like a Zen master, a parent must strive by not striving. Be confident that your child has proclivities and will develop interests. Once they find activities that interest and challenge them, they will pursue these activities with inner gusto. Learn to tune out your neighbor as she explains that her 10 year-old daughter understands string theory (she does not) or that her 5 year old son is a budding musical genius (nope, not that either). Instead of feeling inadequate or competitive, take a deep breath and realize that you are serving your child by creating a low stress environment. While your child might miss an activity or two, you will be fostering an atmosphere of joy and possibility that will prime your child for self-discovery and confidence. And, you will enjoy each other.